A boy will come out of me today. He was supposed to come out on the sixth, the date circled and re-circled on my desk calendar like a child’s sun. But the sixth was like every other sixth, as was the seventh and the eighth. And the next day my doctor rested her warm hands on my soft, unshaved calves and explained what I should do, should my child not come naturally. Naturally, with a breaking of water and a trickle on the floor. She went through our one-week plan, how the induction might happen. The benefits and risks of continuous EFM and IV, epidurals, pain relief drugs. I rolled the word around in my mouth—induction—a distant concern now clarifying in possibility, its edges sharpening. I thought of politicians being inducted into office, of freshmen boys swearing fealty by candlelight. I wondered if my son would share the same look in his eyes. If he would drop out of the folds of my skin dazed and drunk on Pitocin all because we’re impatient, come on, let’s grow.
But he will be coming today, and I know this because it is 3am and there is a damp spot on the bed. A small amount, barely anything. Just enough to fill a water gun. They said I would know when it happened. Oh, you’ll know. There’s that. . .knowing. But really there’s just a mark on the bed and a small trickle down my leg and a wetness in my underwear. I stand in the bathroom and close my eyes, holding a stomach that doesn’t feel like mine anymore except for the fact that it is tethered to my breasts and hips. With my hands I nudge the creature inside of me and type a question out with my fingertips. Are. . .you. . .ready. . .son? I hear my mother snoring in our makeshift guest room, an almost violent breaking of the night air, but the sound is muffled by the walls and by my belly, which I have fallen into like the ocean, my ears attuned only to the waves of blood and oxygen beneath my palms. Let me know, I say, fingers tapping on my skin as the first drops of a storm. Talk to me.
I lower myself to the edge of the tub and my underwear is cool on my skin, the skin I cannot see because of my belly. If I reach just right, if I bend my arm a certain way, I can run my fingers over the coarse hair down there, overgrown and tangled. Some women get waxed while pregnant, the same women we watched in the delivery reenactments during our hospital-led classes, with soft hair and glowing cheekbones. I imagined their babies sliding out of them like liquid from a straw. Mine will have to climb out with both hands, hacking through the dark with a machete. And yet despite this I feel no shame for the hair that’s spread from the space beneath my belly, nor the soft downy hair that covers my thighs, my calves, the tops of my ankles. I sit alone on this warm August night in Iowa, the yellow moon falling like lemon slices though the slatted window, and feel incandescently young, unencumbered by the need to shave away parts of myself for display. With my eyes closed and my palms brushing the tops of my thighs, I am made pubescent, carrying a child and yet a child myself, fuzzy as a peach in summer. And in 31 hours they’ll order an episiotomy with my legs tired and shaking from the strain of holding myself open as a mouth. I’ll hear the shink-shink-shink of the operating scissors cutting me open, bizarre only because they sound just like any other pair of scissors. And underneath the chorus of push and breathe and hold I’ll hear the sound of those scissors and imagine them cutting heart shapes out of my vulva like children making valentines, pink flaps laced with skin and sterile tissue paper.
It’s important that you know that I’m filled with love. Here and now, sitting on this cold tub with the waters of my amniotic sac cooling what will in 31 hours be a bloody yawn. Every scrap of my body and every inch of my skin has stretched over the last nine months to accommodate a second set of arms and legs and ankles, and with it a momentous love. The same love my mother must have felt when she carried me in the most intimate way a person can be held 29 years ago—deep within and wholly offered. My mother and I have this connection now, these shared wonders and pains of motherhood. What it is to hold a tiny body of half-formed bones in your arms and see the world narrow down to the folds of his ears. I catch myself in the bathroom mirror in the dim light and I want so badly to see my mother reflected there, with all these big moments between us, connecting us. Only she isn’t there, only the sound of her breathing from the other room. I stand up, my swollen ankles pillowing beneath me, and lean over the counter until my face is an inch from the glass. There are my cheekbones, my pale skin, a bottom lip dimpled by worrying teeth, and yet except for a shared slope of nose there is nothing there that I’ve seen in her face, no remnant of the woman who held me. Who still holds me, even when it’s quiet and shared only in brief moments—a hand patting the top of my head, an extra marshmallow in a mug of hot chocolate, a wrinkled check sliding across the counter to pay for a wedding dress laced with silk. All gestures so quiet, devoid of language to dress them up. And remembering these gestures I want nothing more than to open the door to the guest room and crawl into my mother’s blankets, to see her face when I tell her, Yes, he’s coming. He’s coming soon and I’m glad you’re here. And she will lay her hand on my cheek and her shirt collar will slip and I’ll see her scars and suddenly I’ll feel so afraid. So afraid of what is coming—the smiling strangers looking up my legs, the responsibilities that come afterward—but also of falling into my mother’s body, reliving her history.
The history in which she found a lump in her right breast just eight months after I was born, undergoing a lumpectomy and axillary lymph node dissection six months later. Spending the next year slotting herself into countless CT scanners like those pneumatic tubes at the bank, the bad cells rattling like dirty nickels beneath her skin. The history in which her lymph system became more and more damaged, her right arm thick and swollen as raised dough across the pillow. Until finally this chapter of her history closes seven years later with a double mastectomy, the procedure numbing, even now, the space from her collarbone to the top of her rib cage. The cancer pilfers her body for the last time, leaving my mother to win a battle that her own mother had lost 23 years before her. Her mother, who had undergone the same routine—radiation, chemotherapy, double mastectomy—on and on, the cancer growing and festering in my grandmother’s body until, one day, it looked up and saw a reflection of itself in her young and bright and warm 20-year-old daughter. And, seeing its own child in the child of another, the cancer knew that it would live beyond itself, even as it felt its own time running out in this body that grew weaker and weaker every day, a vessel shipwrecked by its own making.
And on it goes, another mother looking down and hoping that her baby will be lucky. Praying her child will leave this world a long, long way off with her body still intact, without having to slice away pieces of herself like bruises from a banana. And she’ll be wrong, as so many parents are, about the ferocity of bad things, and about how useless love is when it comes to the tenderness of the body. I wrap my arms around my bulging belly and feel the thinness of my skin, wrapped like so much tin foil around my son—my son, who could die for the smallest reason, who could even now be hiccupping for the last time, each one soft and quiet as a popped bubble underwater. An absurd laugh comes out of me at the foolishness of it all, my dry voice echoing in the tiny bathroom. I can’t stop laughing at the mechanisms and tools and products and mantras we use to protect these crying heartbeats, these babies who are so fragile, the elevators of their lives sliding down, down, down the moment they’re born, until finally by 41 or 43 or 29 they are asked to fight things they can’t see—cancer, illness, doubt, anger, guilt, hate—with bodies that shake and stutter as old light bulbs. My water breaks and with it the security of stoppering those very bad things within myself, of having the luxury of choosing what goes into my child’s body and mind and lungs. I imagine pouring myself into a colander beside his crib every night, the tendrils of my life dividing and categorizing into pluses and minuses: my father’s thick blonde hair falling through easily, my mother’s intuition and zeal for education, my straight teeth; retained in the mouth of the bowl is a thick sluice of leftover qualities: my father’s abusive childhood, the battered breasts of my mother and my grandmother, my own depression and worries, on and on until the colander is tipping, leaking onto the crib sheets where my son lies sleeping with a tiny mouth open and snoring, breathing it all in as easy as oxygen.
I shake my head and feel the cold porcelain of the counter beneath my palms again. I’m standing just as I was, my belly protruding out over the sink like a ship’s bow. Somewhere on the other side of the mirror is my husband rustling in our bed. I know that if I stay in here long enough he’ll come to check on me, his sleeping habits light even before the ninth month, before I started going to bed feeling like I should apologize. Apologize for going another day with all this horrible anticipation, all the worries and concerns and what ifs coloring the days like tea bags, another day without a son to hold.
And yet even standing in this cold bathroom with my water broken and with the histories of my life and my mother’s life and her mother’s life rolling around fast as marbles in my head, I know that these concerns about him are ludicrous. That my husband is a good man with thinning brown hair and a cleft nose who stares at me daily with absolute adoration and love. A man who would only laugh at my apologies, not coldly but with that shaking head way, that Woman, you’re mad way. And he’d pull me toward him smelling of that spicy discount deodorant he buys in bulk and it’d be ok. For a moment, before the next fear wedged its fingers beneath the door, it’d be ok, against his good, warm chest and with his long arms holding me up. And for that moment I could remind myself that this is why I’m having this baby—to make another patient and kind man like my husband, all the way down to his short-sighted eyes and infectious laugh. I imagine the two of us infusing our baby with so much love that he comes out smelling of it, all that adoration fusing to the pores of his pale skin like perfume in a bottle. It’s the simplest reason to have a baby, wanting an echo of your favorite person out there in the world. I breathe out slowly, satisfied with this reminder that my son will be born because of a conscious decision to embody love in the most literal way, removed totally from my anxieties and worries and heritage. It’s the most uncomplicated reason in the world, I think, wanting someone new to love.
It’s only after 31 hours of labor that I understand how wrong I am. After the hospital bands have rubbed my wrists pink and I’ve pushed, pushed, pushed for nurses and doctors whose names I’ve forgotten, after my son is removed from me screaming so high and so loud that I want to say please, put him back in, please, and after he is carried away and placed on a table where wet gloves prod him, push him, make him cry harder while all the while he’s far away, too far away, I can’t see my son and someone is asking me something but I can’t hear and my legs are too numb to run to him and don’t they know that I can’t see him is he alright someone tell me is he alright. And he was. Just fine. Healthy and warm from the heat lamp, a boy pink as candy lying on my chest and sleeping. I stare down, muttering without sound, my hands fluttering over tiny feet and curved shoulders and pale fingers weeping with their own delicacy. My son yawns, and his breath barely lifts the sheet someone has wrapped around us. I watch, touching him only in whispers.
There’s a hum all around us, doctors filtering out of the room and nurses cleaning up behind them. A monitor to the right of the bed works steadily, the sound of my son’s heartbeat beeping in a way that sounds erratic, confused, butterfly wings caught in a jar. One of our nurses—I remember her long fingers, the way they had so easily wrapped around my sweaty calf—leans against the doorway and lifts her thick brown hair away from her neck. She doesn’t seem tired at all, despite having been up with me for the last twelve hours coaching and medicating and contorting my body into impossible shapes. She rests against the doorway and lifts her hair in one slow sweep of her hand, talking languidly to someone on the other end of the hallway. She laughs, a startled, deep sound that fills the room, drowning out the incessant beeps of the monitor. My son startles on my chest and I pull him close, my palm folding over his left ear. I want this woman to leave, to take her loud laugh and her white shoes and leave us be. It’s only when her laughter has died, when I hear the monitor crisp and clear next to me, the beeping like a truck backing up on a busy street, that I want to throw my hand out and pull her closer. I want to nuzzle my face in her warm neck and feel the vibrations of her laugh on my cheek, my forehead, my dry, parched lips, to find out how a person who just moments ago had helped bring a child into being—even now I can feel her handprints on my legs, the tickle of her long hair on my ankle—can laugh like that, so full and free.
And so blissfully brave. I understand that now, how brave it is to take part in something as tremendous as birthing a human being when the consequences are right there, every day staring down at you shaking their heads, spouting off statistics and could be’s and maybe not’s. I listen to the far off voices of the nurses and doctors, some of them urgent, but most quiet, unhurried, and feel saturated by their daring, and by the recklessness that my mother and my grandmother knew when they tempted fate, opening their legs and snubbing their noses at almost certain possibilities. When they looked inside and saw all those dark things waiting inside them and said, You just wait. You haven’t seen the next one.
I hold my son in my arms and feel my grandmother holding him as well, showing me how to slot my palms around his ribs, in a way that’s quiet and fierce all at once. I hold him and feel the strength of him, all that blood chugging just underneath the surface to keep him safe. And it doesn’t make sense for someone with cheeks like his, soft and white as vanilla ice cream in a bowl, but it’s all there inside him, that power, that good, strong history, that kind of fuck you to the consequences. I feel my son’s bones slotting into place beneath my palms and understand that love isn’t the only reason I decided to have him. No, part of him was made to continue the refinement process, to forge a person who will be stronger, just as my mother’s body is stronger than her mother’s, just as my body is stronger than my mother’s. To do something as dangerous as painting someone new into your world when you know that the canvas is bent and dusty and ripped at the seam, every bad thought you’ve ever had smeared and bleeding into this new person who depends on you for everything, who looks at you with trust and holds your hand and burrows his face into your neck when he’s scared. To do something like that and keep going anyway, even to laugh, with the blind faith that this next one, this young son, this heir to all the bad things but the good things too, will be stronger. We have a kid because we want to see our love manifested. We have a kid because we want to see someone with our ears and our nose and our cleft chin win battles that we couldn’t, in ways that we can’t imagine. Until one day my son holds some little person in his arms and passes his battles along, the good and bad things of his body cast to the fire with the hope of forging someone good. Someone better.
Oh, god, I think, the burdens we place on our children. Metal hangers under winter coats, bent and breaking behind a door we close ourselves.
And yet above this is the laugh, the sudden, absurd reminder of joy. The heady sensation of recognizing your own bravery in this place, this hospital room at the crossroads of death and life. There is the whisper of my son’s blonde hair beneath my fingertips, pale and thin as veins on a leaf, his throat and fingers and ears dripping with my love and his father’s love. And there is the look on my mother’s face when she comes in the room, like an egg cracked open, spilling out joy and tears and bright colors. I see my mother and I recognize her, because she’s in the face of my son, somewhere in the eyes, the slow slope of his nose. She walks to the other side of the room and twists the window slats open to take a picture, her tan cheeks wet and glistening. The light catches the bed and my son feels sunlight for the first time, soft summer gold skittering down the bumps of his spine, a boy cast in flames. The light catches his eyes and he wakes, cries, turns his head away, quiets. I pull the sheet up and rest my palm against the back of his head, nuzzling into his hair with my cheek. He’s half asleep when I realize that someone’s turned off the monitor beside us. He’s snoring softly when I realize how much his cries sound like laughing, high and sudden and with the entirety of his body.